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Cultural Capitalism (February 2007)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

Britlit, chicklit, squaddylit, cheflit, chavlit ... call it what you like, but it's rubbish.


Oh God, it's listing time again! A bit early in the year, given the usual post-Crimbo glut, when the papers go on to auto-pilot, and whirring and clicking punches out tables of the usual suspects.

And there they all are, in the team photo: Young Amis, McEwan, Barnes, Ishiguro, etc. Eddie Morgan and Michael Longley are on the bookspines, but - being Ulster and Scots - no photos.

Think back: think about 1907. Conrad is working on The Secret Agent, James has just published The Golden Bowl, Kipling sulks, but gets the Nobel Prize. Meredith is at the end of his career, PG Wodehouse, DH Lawrence, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and EM Forster at the beginning of theirs.

Shaw is at the height of the Vedrenne-Barker seasons at the Court Theatre, HG Wells is tackling Tono-Bungay, Yeats is goading the Irish from the Abbey stage - and around them are Arnold Bennett, Ford Madox Ford, George Moore, Cunninghame-Graham, John Buchan, Lady Gregory - not to speak of that generation of suffragettes who would hatch "agit-prop" theatre. Within a couple of years, add the unexpected: the remorse of Thomas Hardy, which would yield the finest love-poems of the century.

In comparison with - what? A year or so ago I ploughed through part of Young Amis's Koba the Dread, encountering a quasi-literate gob aimed at Hugh MacDiarmid. This childish insolence to the man who created the Scottish renaissance, who took us "from Scotland to the infinite", didn't make me want to read more.

For the others? If the writing of the 1900s seemed to produce in Max Weber's terms, an "ideal type" of the debates convulsing the modernist, imperialist, intelligentisia, the present lot were more definable in terms of metropolitan market and opportunity. I wanted instead to finish reading Theodore Fontane and Joseph Roth, to re-read Stendhal, Mann and Lampedusa: personal inclination as well as our national situation urge their own priorities. A learned Scoto-European critic like Allan Massie, however unionist and conservative, has more to say to me than all but a handful of the bien-pensant Metroliterati.

Never underestimate the affection within "these Islands" for the Great Tradition. Dickens inspired de Valera, Wells taught Caradoc Evans, Shaw's Undershaft told young Michael Collins, in the gods at the Court Theatre: "Shoot, and you bring down governments!" But remember John Osborne's Entertainer about the same place: "Don't clap too hard, we're in an old building!" It has collapsed.

Motion, McEwan, Barnes, Schama, Ferguson matter as much as their publicity campaigns and not a lot more. Cultural capitalism has become precisely that: the transmuting of intellectual activity into geld. For a time the show is roughly co-terminous with the range of literary commerce, then the feedback system fouls up, it makes the wrong calculations, and lurches into collapse.

OK, there might be the "Wimbledon effect", as in high finance. Eight out of the 10 major commercial publishers are controlled from abroad. But this narrows the field down to what sells, or is deemed to sell, by the agencies, publicity departments and chain-bookshop buyers who have consigned proper editors and publishers' readers to the broom cupboard.

The result? The freakshow of chicklit, squaddylit, cheflit, chavlit bankrolling the metropolitan Eloi, while Rupert Morlock pumps the cash into the veins of the City - though even he must be wondering how he's going to recoup more than a few thousand from the four millions slung at Wayne Rooney. Crap football, like crap society, makes crap books.

Posy Simmons' merciless Literary Life and Tamara Drewe strips give this the Orwell or Gissing treatment, and at least suggest the speed of change and incipient dissolution. But even she can't capture the moral squalor of the telephone-number advances pursuing some of the most disgraceful politicians this country has ever seen, the complicity of too many of our Biglit hitters - Rushdie, Amis, Hitchens - with dollar-and-oil imperialism, and the general cash-swollen, intellect-light quality of the whole thing.

Out here in cash-free blogland you can discern Vanity Fair, and amid the louts and hecklers, mark the persistence of "sober truthspeaking" in Carlyle or Bunyan's terms: literature as a farmers' market, not a Tesco. As a Scot Nat, for whom independence can't come soon enough, the saddest thing has been the eclipse of the decent, inclusive tradition of choice and debate - English rather than British - that a fine, inevitably under-rated, novelist Joyce Cary noted in To be a Pilgrim in 1941:

And at another time when the prophets are buying consols and the newspapers are declaring that the political weather is set fair, the little men say to each other, "This time something is going to happen." Is this the famous political sense which is supposed to belong to certain peoples? Or is it merely a judgement of circumstance closer to the people and the wage-earner, than to the clever men in clubs? Does something happen, on these occasions, which hits the sense of the common people, and clerks on the buses, so that they find everywhere a unanimity of expectation?

Yes it does. But BritLit/BigLit can't be bothered to look for it.

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